Tag Archives: alcoholics anonymous

alcoholism and everyday addictions

the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are sometimes summarized in these seven words:

i can’t
god can
i better let god

these pithy words come from the first three steps:

1. we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable
2. we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity.
3. we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him.

depending on one’s interpretation, that can sound quite defeatist (“i can’t / i’m powerless”) and cultish (“i better let god / turn over our will”).

in my occasional musings on how the 12 steps can be used outside of traditional addiction recovery (for example, here are some thoughts on step 3) i’d like to propose that these seven pithy words and these three steps can be useful for anyone as a guide in their lives.

we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.

it may not be alcohol, it may not be drugs, food, work, cigarettes or caffeine – but the truth is that there are a lot of things inside and outside of ourselves that we are powerless over, and that feel totally overwhelming. i have no power over the traffic, you have no power over your boss, joe has no power over politics. but it goes deeper than that – it is our reactions to these things that truly trouble us – the feelings of helplessness, the endless worry, the anger. we hate these feelings, so we run to do something about them – TV, romance novels, potato chips, blackjack chips. at the root of that are fear and pain and avoidance of fear and pain through escape into instant gratification. so how about:

step 1: we are run by fear and pain and avoidance of them, and that the endless cycling between those two is exhausting and overwhelming – it is insanity.

we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity.

is there something greater than fear and avoidance of fear? god? maybe for some. how about for those uncomfortable with or plainly disinterested in the idea of god? the 12 steps are informed by underlying principles such as honesty, hope, courage, integrity, love, justice and service – all positive, life-affirming, values that are greater than our little egos and ids, our inner factories that constantly crank out more fear and fear avoidance. here is my proposition, then:

step 2: we remind ourselves that by holding on to our values, we can rise above fear and instant gratification and leave insanity behind.

we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him.

the awareness that there is an alternative to fear, pain and instant gratification is a good start but it is not enough. a lot of us are aware that there are problems. we need to make a decision to do something with that awareness. this decision, by the way, needs to happen on a daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. fear and pain and our desire to escape them are incredibly strong; if we want to let go of them as prime motivators for our lives, we need to counter them with our values, virtues and beliefs on an almost constant basis. one of my favourite quotes is freud’s about us having but a “thin veneer of civilization”. i firmly believe if we are to keep this world going, maybe even make it a better place, we need to do everything we can to make this veneer stronger and thicker. we literally need to become more civil. isn’t that one of the main goals of democracry (a concept deeply informed by civility): to create and nurture an environment where citizens need not be governed by fear? just as we need to keep working on and fighting for democracy, we need to keep building our own personal virtues and values. here is my suggestion for step 3:

step 3: we decided to lead our lives by our virtues and values.

i would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

a 12-step buddhist talks about anger and george bush

a guest post by the 12-step buddhist:

how do you feel now that barack is official? i’m still in shock. waiting for a big news release about some kick ass exec orders reversing idiocracy. one of the big questions for me is how to practice buddhism and the principles of 12-step recovery around politics. on one hand, i care very deeply about the state of the nation. but not just the nation, or certain people in the nation who i like.

in the 12-step world, we are to be of service to everyone. in buddhism, we’re interested in the total liberation of all sentient beings from every form of suffering–forever. so how do we deal with our strong feelings about, say george bush for example? do we have the right to have anger towards him? certainly, from a non-buddhist perspective, we should be angry. but in the 12-step world, we know that anger is the dubious luxury of normal people. in buddhism, we strive to have compassion for everyone, even, especially, the ones who make us angry.

for one thing, karma says we cause our own suffering. anger is suffering. holding on to anger is holding on to suffering. venting our anger is causing more suffering. understanding equanimity is also a buddhist tool that we can apply. george bush and barack obama have the exact same buddha nature. how could they be different? we can also practice compassion. how does it feel, deep inside, to be george bush today? can we imagine that he, like us and all beings, wants not to suffer and wants only happiness.

your comments are welcome. let’s see how people really feel about this topic. be honest. let it out. i’ll respond to the comments in a few days.

darren littlejohn blogs here and is the author of the 12-step buddhist.

depression and AA: as bill sees it

bill w. and dr. bobjohn at storied mind recently wrote a post on the intersection between depression and the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous. it just so happens that same evening i was browsing through “as bill sees it”, a compilation of writings by bill w., the founder of that group. it has a few entries on depression. you might find them interesting:

sometimes, we become depressed. … while the surface causes were a part of the picture — trigger-events that precipitated depression – the underlying causes, i am satisfied, ran much deeper. intellectually, i could accept my situation. emotionally, i could not.

to these problems, there are certainly no pat answers. but part of the answer surely lies in the constant effort to practice all of A.A.’s twelve steps. (letter, 1954)

i asked myself, “why can’t the twelve steps work to release me from this unbearable depression?” by the hour, i stared at the st. francis prayer: “it is better to comfort than to be comforted.”

suddenly i realized what the answer might be. my basic flaw had always been dependence on people or circumstances to supply me with prestige, security, and confidence. failing to get these things according to my perfectionist dreams and specifications, i fought for them. and when defeat came, so did my depression.

reinforced by what grace i could find in prayer, i had to exert every ounce of will and action to cut off these faulty emotional dependencies upon people and upon circumstances. then only could i be free to love as francis had loved. (grapevine, AA’s newsletter, january 1958)

when i was tired and couldn’t concentrate, i used to fall back on an affirmation toward life that took the form of simple walking and deep breathing. i sometimes told myself that i couldn’t do even this — that i was to weak. but i learned that this was the point at which i could not give in without becoming still more depressed.

so i would set myself a small stint. i would determine to walk a quarter of a mile. and i would concentrate by counting my breathing — say, six steps to each slow inhalation and four to each exhalation.

having done the quarter-mile, i found that i could go on, maybe a half-mile more. then another half-mile, and maybe another. this was encouraging. the false sense of physical weakness would leave me (this feeling being so characteristic of depressions). the walking and especially the breathing were powerful affirmations toward life and living and away from failure and death. the counting represented a minimum discipline in concentration, to get some rest from the wear and tear of fear and guilt. (letter, 1960)

more on the 12 steps: step 5

it’s been almost a year that i last discussed a step from the 12-step programs a la AA. thankfully, someone made a comment on another 12-step post, and that spurred me on to another post.

while the 12 steps were originally intended to help alcoholics and addicts, they have proven to be a fine blueprint for any kind of recovery.

that last step i discussed was step 4, which is designed to help people make an inventory of all the burdens of the past, as well as of all their assets they want to keep.

step 5 says, “admitted to god, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

once again, if you see the word “god” and freak out, please read on – it doesn’t have to be the god of your childhood or george bush’s god – the word “god” just stands for something good in your life. another word for “god” in 12-step programs is “higher power”.

if this higher power is the highest authority in one’s life – allah, for example, or buddha nature, or one’s internal value system, or simply that power that is greater/other than the little ego that has run the show unsuccessfully so far – then the relationship with that higher power is one of the most important relationships. in that case, after having done all the work of the inventory, why wouldn’t one immediately check this out with this higher power?

it goes on “… and to another human being”. “confessing” to another human being is immensely powerful; the catholics knew what they were doing. that’s also why therapy is so useful. research shows that people who carry too many deep, dark secrets are more accident prone and are generally less healthy. this is corroborated by research that indicates that high concentrations of bodily secretions of people who carry a lot of hate and unresolved anger can kill laboratory animals.

yet this step is not about confessing “sins”. it is the logical continuation of step 3 – “made the decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him” – a decision to trust the goodness in your life. if a person is willing to turn their whole life over to this goodness, then it surely makes sense to turn over a handful of mistakes, fears, worries and regrets, even though (and maybe exactly because) they may have been held in secret for a long time.

what about this “other human being?” this really can be a life-transforming step so it’s good to choose that person carefully. i suggest to a) choose a person who understands the process, preferably someone who has been through it more than once, b) someone you can trust in all the different ways you need to trust them, and c) an environment where the precious nature of such a step can be honoured.

at the beginning of sharing, it’s helpful if there is a negotation about what the other person will do. do you just want to recite your list, with the other person simply as a “loving witness”? what type of feedback, if any, do you want, and at what point? do you want to hear the other person’s experience, strength and hope regarding similar difficulties they had?

many 12-steppers believe that “it is only through the process of discussing our shortcomings out loud with an understanding person that we can finally begin to know ourselves and accept ourselves” (from overeaters anonymous).

the “out loud” is really important. “out loud” doesn’t necessarily mean literally – this step has been done successfully over the internet or the telephone – but it does mean that you need to get all that junk out of your head, outside of your head and heart. you know when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep and you toss and turn with a gazillion worries? it’s because it’s all stuck in there, rattling around, like a bird trapped in your living room, banging its little head against the window. your living room doesn’t need the bird, the bird doesn’t need your living room, let it out!

this is all useless baggage. how can we know ourselves if we’re almost unrecognizable under a mountain of stuff?

something really beautiful happens in this sharing. i like to think of it as the breaking of the bread in christianity or the sharing of the pipe in native traditions. the sharing goes deep inside of us.

what about the “discussion?” a loving witness may not do that much discussing; most of it may come from the person who is laying her burden down. maybe that’s what’s needed, or at least for some of the things that are brought up. some of our baggage feels pretty darn raw, it’s difficult enough to bare one’s soul – maybe it’s a little early to actually engage in a discussion about them. you may need to have space to simply speak your piece, without anyone else’s perspective added to it.

in many cases, though, a bit of discussion is a good idea. it can be illuminating when after a while of talking, the other person begins to see some angles of your burdens that you hadn’t seen before. sometimes they are quite surprising. it’s very similar to what often happens in therapy – indeed, the very reason why many people enjoy therapy. i remember i client who talked a lot about not being focused and ambitious enough at university; it turned out that he simply was not the university type and would be much better suited to more hands-on work. you see, the interesting thing is that in talking about all of these supposed “defects”, a picture slowly emerges – often quite a beautiful picture that simply had never been seen in such clarity before.

towards the end of discussing step 5, one of the 12-step books says, “from this point on, we begin to leave behind the character defects which have caused us so many problems in the past.”

what a beautiful promise! leave them all behind.

fear, shame, self-delusion, procrastination, self-centredness, resentment, gossip, closed-mindedness, destructive anger, neglectfulness … all these can be left behind. imagine opening your hands and letting go of them … and then moving on … with your feet fully, squarely planted on a new path.